World

Election setback for Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Joko Widodo using holograms to sell his message. Brunei introduces anti-gay laws. Gerrymandering in the US. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Joko Widodo aims for holo election win

Supporters of Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto react during a campaign rally in Denpasar.
Credit: Sonny Tumbelaka / AFP / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Turkey: At markets in Turkey, many shoppers now arrive early and join a long queue at new government-run stalls, where they buy subsidised fruit and vegetables before purchasing their remaining groceries. Turkey has about 20 per cent inflation, falling wages and a weakening currency; the country went into recession in March. The stalls are a response to these troubles.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s longstanding and increasingly autocratic leader, has been largely blamed by economists for these woes, particularly because his heavy borrowing has fuelled inflation.

But there are signs that his economic mismanagement and political repression are eroding his support. Last weekend, his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and its nationalist ally lost municipal elections in Istanbul and Ankara, according to unofficial tallies. On Tuesday, his party formally challenged the results.

The AKP still won more than 51 per cent of votes across the country. But the results marked a personal rebuke for Erdoğan, who was Istanbul’s mayor in the 1990s and had pinned Turkey’s future on the outcome. At rallies, he broadcast footage taken by the gunman during the mass shootings in Christchurch, telling supporters that the West was responsible for “preparing” the white supremacist’s manifesto.

The setback could inflame Erdoğan’s strident, paranoid nationalism – he has blamed grocery prices on foreign “food terrorists” – and further damage his ties with the United States. Despite being a member of NATO, Turkey plans to buy a new Russian missile defence system. This angered the US, which this week took steps to block delivery of the US-made F-35 fighter aircraft to Turkey. Washington fears the Russian radar could learn how to track the jet. The group of countries participating in the F-35 program is itself a sort of proxy US-centred global alliance – and excluding Turkey would have implications beyond limiting its air force capability.

AUSTRALIA’S BACKYARD

Indonesia: During the final days of a hard-fought presidential campaign in Indonesia, Joko Widodo has begun spreading his message via a life-sized hologram of himself in jeans and sneakers, beamed onto the back of trucks that pull up at political rallies.

Notably, he is joined by a simulacrum of his running mate, Ma’ruf Amin, a senior Muslim scholar who appears wearing a skullcap and scarf. The pairing is odd, but it has helped to bolster Widodo’s Islamic credentials and enabled him to focus on his infrastructure push, including plans to develop much-needed rail lines.

Still, it has not been possible to prevent a series of online hoaxes and viral fake-news items from infecting the campaign in this social media-obsessed nation of 192 million voters.

Responding to claims that he is not Muslim, Widodo’s hologram has been telling voters: “It’s all slander, lies. Don’t believe it.”

And Ma’ruf’s hologram says what Widodo’s perhaps cannot: “Islam has become a political commodity. Verses from the Koran are being used for political purposes.”

Widodo has also been accused of being a Chinese Communist, a claim designed to tap into the nation’s persistent anti-Chinese sentiment. But his growing reliance on Chinese investment to assist his infrastructure projects has made the claim more potent at this election. His challenger, Prabowo Subianto, a former general who also ran in the previous election in 2014, has seized on this vulnerability, pledging to review large-scale Chinese investments and seek greater economic self-sufficiency.

For now, polls indicate that Widodo will easily win. Though his Obama-style sheen has largely worn off, and he has failed to reach his economic growth targets of 7 per cent, he has been able to pitch himself as committed to boosting jobs, manufacturing and investment. As long as the fake news does not stick, this argument seems likely to prevail at the election on April 17.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Brunei: The sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, is the country’s absolute monarch, as well as its prime minister, head of Islam, and minister of defence and finance. He has ruled the country, which gained independence from Britain in 1984, for 51 years.

With little debate or opposition, he decreed that, from this week, the state would implement death by stoning as a punishment for adultery, gay sex and abortion. Theft would be punished by amputation; and lesbian sex, by whipping. The new sharia was condemned as “cruel and inhuman” by the United Nations, and prompted George Clooney to call for a boycott of the sultanate’s hotels, which include the Dorchester in London and the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. The Dorchester chain insisted it did not tolerate discrimination, saying “inclusion and diversity remain core beliefs”. Elton John said he and his husband “have long refused to stay at these hotels and will continue to do so”.

The new criminal code was announced in late 2013, just as the oil-dependent state began to face declining revenues, but the harshest laws took effect on Wednesday. A government statement said the sultan “does not expect other people to accept and agree with it, but [they should] just respect the nation in the same way that it also respects them”.

The sultan has long been known as one of the world’s richest, and most ostentatious, people. He lives in an 1800-room palace and owns an estimated 500 Rolls-Royces. This is despite the relative obscurity of his Muslim-majority country, which has about 450,000 residents.

The reason for his decision to adopt the new code is unclear. There is speculation that the 72-year-old has become repentant for his early decadence. Or he may be trying to gain an even tighter hold on the country as oil revenue slows.

SPOTLIGHT: GERRYMANDERING

United States: At last year’s congressional elections the Democrats received 51.6 per cent of the vote in North Carolina’s 12 contested seats yet won just three of them. The other nine went to the Republicans, which received 48.4 per cent of the vote. This skewed result – achieved by a party packing its opponent’s supporters into a few electorates and carefully spreading its own supporters across the rest – is known throughout the world as gerrymandering. In the US, it is known as democracy.

But a case on whether the practice is lawful is now before the US Supreme Court, which heard oral argument on March 26. The case is based on the electoral maps of North Carolina and Maryland, where the strange-shaped 6th congressional district – critics say it looks like a pterodactyl – appears to favour the Democrats.

One of the expert witnesses in the North Carolina case was Simon Jackman, who grew up in Queensland. He was appalled by Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s notoriously malapportioned electoral maps in the 1970s and 1980s, which put more voters in urban seats than rural seats. Jackman, who then studied American voting in the US for 25 years and is now head of the US Studies Centre at Sydney University, said mapping software and voting data made modern gerrymandering much more difficult to detect.

“It is quite possible to draw a map that, on its face, does not look weird to the eye, but politically it can be a gerrymander,” he told The Saturday Paper. “The Republicans have taken this to another level.”

Jackman says the Republicans are motivated by both electoral gain and revenge after finally taking control of state legislatures that had long been used by Democrats to gerrymander.

Some states in the US have independent electoral commissions, which have wiped out the practice. It is an easy fix.

But, Jackman says, the Supreme Court, which is now dominated by Republican-appointed conservatives, is unlikely to intervene and will largely leave electoral map-making in the hands of the states. The consequence, he says, is that minorities in the US are having their voices stifled, and inequalities are becoming more entrenched.

“This suppression of the translation of the preferences of poorer people and non-white people into policy is perpetuating longstanding inequities in American society,” Jackman says. “The stakes are incredibly high.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 6, 2019 as "Widodo aims for holo election win". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.